Home > Academic Programs > Faculty of Arts and Science > Humanities > Religion, Society and Culture > Why study Religion, Society and Culture at Bishop’s?

The humanities disciplines appeal to the ability to think and read critically, to analyze and to appreciate the wisdom enshrined in great texts, both past and present, to express oneself intelligently, to be a good citizen, etc. Humanities courses can appeal to satisfying one’s curiosity about metaphysics, history, literature, music or drama, to name just several. It is often pointed out that those with a solid humanities education advance further in the vocational world than those who lack that educational background. Everything else being approximately equal, employers would prefer to hire such a person.

Departments that focus primarily on religion, however, have a particular disadvantage in regard to attracting students. Prospective students often do not know what such departments and their courses entail. Many assume that religion courses are like advanced Sunday-school classes, or that they are doctrinaire and “preachy”. As such, religion courses are to be avoided unless (a) you are seeking salvation, (b) you want to become a cleric, or (c) you want to memorize Bible verses. Conversely, some think that religion courses are designed to destroy faith and morals and undermine sacred texts. Other humanities departments are not faced with such misconceptions.


So, what is a department devoted to the academic study of religion all about? We are not in the business of either promoting or demoting faith. We deal with questions concerning religious traditions: the different ways faith is expressed and practiced; the historical and cultural contexts of religions and their texts; expressions of religious positions and views about religion and faith; the multifaceted ways in which religion interacts with cultures and social groups; the artistic treatment of religion and religious symbols, etc. For example, we do not deal with the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, but with the development of the idea of a Messiah, its meaning(s), and its attribution to the historical figure Jesus. Thus, whether a student does or does not believe in the Messiahship of Jesus, they will understand what the debate is all about.


If one asks a teacher of History, Politics, or Fine Arts what they wish their students knew more about they will almost invariably include religion in the list. This is not because they wish their students were more religious, but because the students simply are not able to understand much of the subject matter without some knowledge of religion. Indeed, religion is an inescapable component of daily news, whether it be religiously motivated violence, the political influence of religion or the latest influential decree from a religious leader. The so-called “Science vs. Religion” war is being publicly fought in American schools.


Yet it has been pointed out by many observers and scholars that while Americans, for example, are overwhelmingly religious, they are also deeply ignorant about religion — including their own. To give but one example, in some surveys 10% of respondents have said that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! Canadians are likely no more knowledgeable about religion than Americans. The result is that it is difficult for people to evaluate intelligently the claims made on behalf of religions, or those that are critical of religion.

How knowledgeable are you?

Try to answer the following basic questions:
(Answers are given below.)

  1. What is the first book of the New Testament?
  2. What is a Protestant?
  3. What is the name of the most sacred book of Islam?
  4. What are the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism?
  5. What are the Vedas in Hinduism?
  6. What is the Torah?
  7. Was Jesus a Christian?
  8. To what event does “Exodus” refer?
  9. Are all the statements made by popes considered infallible?
  10. What distinguishes Judaism, Islam and Christianity from each other? What do they have in common?

If you were unable to answer some of these, you might consider taking courses in the Dept. of Religion, Society and Culture!

See answers to questions:
  1. Matthew
  2. A Christian whose beliefs stem from Martin Luther and others who led the Reformation of the 16th century (Do you know what the Reformation was?)
  3. The Qur’an (or Koran)
  4. The truth concerning the Reality of Suffering The truth concerning the Cause of Suffering The truth concerning the Cessation of Suffering The truth concerning the Path to the Cessation of Suffering
  5. The sacred texts of Hinduism
  6. The first five books of the Jewish Bible (Can you name them?)
  7. No. He was Jewish.
  8. Israel’s escape from Egypt (as narrated in the Torah)
  9. No. Only those that are set forth “ex cathedra” (from the papal chair), and dealing with matters of faith or morals. There have actually been very few such pronouncements, perhaps fewer than 10, going back to 449 CE (Catholic theologians may disagree concerning particulars). In addition to papal infallibility, the Catholic Church also accords infallibility to some statements produced by councils of bishops.
  10. Among the basic differences are: Islam believes that Moses and Jesus were prophets of Allah, as was Muhammad, the foremost and final Prophet, but neither Judaism nor Christianity accords this status to Muhammad. Judaism and Islam do not accept the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah. There are other differences, of course. What they have in common is that all three are monotheistic, and all three accept the Jewish scriptures. (There are other commonalities as well.)

Here are some more difficult questions, more for reflection than for easy answering:

  • Are sacred texts such as the Bible subject to various interpretations — each with equal validity? (Augustine took this position back in the early 5th century.)
  • When one is looking at scientific, historical or archaeological evidence that seems to be inconsistent with biblical claims, upon which should one rely? More importantly, why?
  • Why do innocent people sometimes suffer? (Job’s question)
  • Why does God require a sacrifice (generally animals) for the forgiveness of sins? Is God under the constraints of the legalities of sacrifice, or is sacrifice (including the Christian belief concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus) essentially concerned with something other than “paying the price” for sins?
  • Does morality ultimately require that there be a “higher power” of some kind?
  • Is religion just a way of dealing with, or avoiding, personal problems and fears?

You may not find the answers to these questions in Religion, Society and Culture courses but they will be discussed. Moreover, the skills you will acquire will benefit you immeasurably in many areas of your life.